Naval honour guards stand awaiting a review on China’s aircraft carrier Liaoning. Photo: Reuters
(Sydney Morning Herald) September 26, 2012 BEIJING: China put its first aircraft carrier into service yesterday, a move intended to signal its growing military might as tensions escalate between Beijing and its neighbours over islands in nearby seas.
Officials said the carrier, a discarded vessel bought from Ukraine in 1998 and refurbished by China, would protect national sovereignty, an issue that has become a touchstone of the government’s dispute with Japan over ownership of islands in the East China Sea.
But despite the triumphant tone of the launch, which the President, Hu Jintao, and the Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, attended, and despite rousing assessments by Chinese military experts about the importance of the carrier, the vessel will at this stage only be used for training and testing.
The mark “16” emblazoned on the carrier’s side indicates it is limited to training, Chinese and other military experts said. China does not have planes capable of landing on the carrier and so far training for such landings has been carried out on land, they said.
Even so, the public appearance of the carrier at the north-eastern port of Dalian was used as an occasion to stir patriotic feelings, which have run at fever pitch in the past 10 days over the dispute between China and Japan over the East China Sea islands, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.
The carrier will “raise the overall operational strength of the Chinese navy” and help China “to effectively protect national sovereignty, security and development interests”, the Ministry of Defence said.
The Communist Party congress, that marks the start of the country’s once-in-a-decade leadership transition, is expected to be held next month and the public unveiling of the carrier appeared to be part of an effort to forge national unity ahead of the event.
For international purposes, the public unveiling of the carrier seemed intended to signal to smaller nations in the South China Sea, including the Philippines, a US ally, that China had an increasing number of assets to deploy.
US military planners have played down the significance of the commissioning of the carrier. Some navy officials have even said they would encourage China to move ahead with building its own aircraft carrier and the ships to accompany it, because it would be a waste of money.
Other military experts outside China have agreed with that assessment.
“The aircraft carrier is useless for the Chinese navy,” You Ji, a visiting senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore, said. “If it is used against America, it has no survivability. If it is used against China’s neighbours, it’s a sign of bullying.”
Vietnam operated land-based Russian Su-30 aircraft that could pose a threat to the aircraft carrier, Associate Professor You said.
“In the South China Sea, if the carrier is damaged by the Vietnamese, it’s a huge loss of face,” he said. “It’s not worth it.”
Chinese pilots had been limited to practising simulated carrier landings on concrete strips, using Chinese J-8 aircraft, which were based on Soviet-made MiG-23s produced about 25 years ago, Associate Professor You said. The pilots could not undertake the difficult manoeuvre of landing on a moving carrier because China did not yet have suitable aircraft.
The question of whether China would move ahead and build its own carrier depended in large part, he said, on whether China could develop aircraft to land on one. “It’s a long, long process for constructing such aircraft.”
In contrast to scepticism expressed by military experts outside China, Li Jie, a researcher at the Chinese Naval Research Institute, told the state-run People’s Daily that the carrier would change the Chinese navy’s traditional mindset and bring qualitative changes to its operational style and structure.
Although the Chinese military does not publish a breakdown of its military spending, foreign military experts say the navy is less well financed than the army or air force.